Pundit Payola

Anne Martens

The chattering class has sore jaws over this one.  First Armstrong Williams' quarter-mill for promoting No Child Left Behind, and now Maggie Gallagher is getting flamed for taking $20K for "healthy" marriages.  MoDo is offering her own space for sale to promote administration policies.  And GW himself, after increasing ad and PR funds by $24 mill over Clinton, has decided that it's time to stop paying commentators for comments.

My kneejerk to all this is that it's terrible and unethical and bad, bad, bad for people to take money from government to promote government policies.  Or that it's terrible and unethical and bad to not disclose that they're taking such money.  But then I'm not so sure. 

I've long complained that it's difficult for government to sell the public on policies without being permitted a huge advertising budget.  And if government could promote itself in the same ways that Nike and Exxon and Ben & Jerrys do, then maybe people wouldn't hate government so much and maybe we could build widespread support for particular policies.  Propaganda!  Outrageous!  Well, of course, but also very effective, and frankly much needed in this crowded age of less news and more opinion.

Really, it's not so surprising that people who believe a certain thing are happy to accept money to say what they were going to say anyway.  How does this differ from the standard lecture circuit, where bigwigs get paid big bucks to say what they already believe?  Is it because the money comes from the government and not some other source?  Is it because we know lecturers are being paid and we expect pundits not to be?  Are either of those complaints really legitimate?

Food for thought.  Or cash for comments.

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    I've been trolling the halls of the administration, trying to get on the money train. I figure a blog here or there would give them unique cred among the the wired set. And hell, I'd do it for half what Armstrong Williams charged.

    Let's see, what do you think this comment was worth? Five bucks?

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    Is it because the money comes from the government and not some other source? Is it because we know lecturers are being paid and we expect pundits not to be? Are either of those complaints really legitimate?

    More seriously...

    Yeah, it's because taxpayer money shouldn't go to shill for services. That's one thing. Pretty soon, you'd see budgets balloon as pols packed budgets with pork to sell bills that stink.

    The only reason we have pundits is because we expect them not to be already paid off. Their opinion, when on anyone's teat, isn't worth the paper it's printed on. I used to write about beer, and one mention in a column for me was worth thousands in advertizing from a slot right next to my column. Why? Because the reader knew I was independent and offering an "expert" opinion (whoo-boy, did I have 'em fooled on that). If they knew that Budweiser was paying me, why ever read the article?

    We've just had so much degredation in ethics with the likes of Fox that this now seems reasonable. It's not.

  • schweiz8 (unverified)

    Posted over at dailykos: An article on Editor & Publisher's website here

    Announces leglislation to put a halt to these such practices.

    Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) will introduce a bill, The Stop Government Propaganda Act, in the Senate next week. "It's just not enough to say, 'Please don't do it anymore,'" Alex Formuzis, Lautenberg's spokesman, told E&P. "Legislation sometimes is required and we believe it is in this case."

    The Stop Government Propaganda Act states, "Funds appropriated to an Executive branch agency may not be used for publicity or propaganda purposes within the United States unless authorized by law."

    "It's time for Congress to shut down the Administration's propaganda mill," Lautenberg said in a statement. "It has no place in the United States Government." The bill is co-sponsored by Sens. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Jon Corzine (D-N.J.).

    Call and urge Wyden and Smith to co-sponsor this bill. This is obviously neccesary.

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    Anne, here's the distinction you're looking for...

    There's a fundamental difference between advertising and propaganda. The government can, and should, be able to promote specific government services ("don't forget to sign up by June 1st to get your special health care card" or something) but should not be able to spend money on promoting political points of view.

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    Not to split hairs even further, Kari and Anne, but...government does spend money on promoting political points of view when they hire media relations people to work in politician's offices and in government bureaucracies. (I know, because I've been one.)

    It's just that the general public understands that Ari Fleischer and Mike McCurry are paid to shill for the President they work for. It's transparent. What's sneaky is paying a supposed independent columnist to shill for you without revealing it. That's my problem with this whole thing.

  • Carol Hamilton (unverified)

    To paraphrase Joe Connason:

    American journalists don't take money from the politicians they cover because we don't live in a totalitarian regime where state-subsidized scribblers are expected to glorify the Beloved Leader.

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    Leslie, yeah, you're right -- staff who work in the personal political offices are just fine; it's the underhanded stuff done ostensibly out of the bureaucracy.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)

    This stinks from both ends. A pundit operates within the world of journalism, not as a reporter, but as an editorialist. If she accepts pay from interested parties, that should be disclosed up front.

    The federal government has long practiced propaganda. That does not make it acceptable. Secretly paying for good press violates the principle of open government and misuses tax money. If someone speaks in support of a government program, openly on contract to do so, that is honest and transparent.

  • PanchoPdx (unverified)

    I'm far more bothered by all the resources that the drug czar spent to publicly oppose marijuana ballot measures (esp. Nevada).

    Whatever solution should, at the very least, prohibit spending public money to influence an election's outcome.

    Oops. I suppose that principle won't square with the Clean Money Proposal.

  • Mac Diva (unverified)

    Anne, after giving the matter some thought, I've followed up here. Your entry is cited, along with some others. There's also some new information. Turns out there are at least three conservative columnists who were paid directly by federal agencies to promote policies of the Bush administration.

    I found the E&P coverage really useful. It is linked at the bottom of my entry.

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